A one-time resident of this city who had been bitter over its transformation into a playground for the rich left four gift-wrapped bombs downtown in a bank-robbery attempt, turning New Year’s Eve celebrations into a mass evacuation, police said Thursday.
The dangerous bombs were made of gasoline and cell phone parts and came with notes warning of “mass death.” The 72-year-old man suspected of placing them in two banks and in an alleyway on Wednesday shot and killed himself a short time later, police said.
The body of James Chester Blanning, who grew up in Aspen and lived in Denver since 2003, was found Thursday, police said.
Blanning walked into two Aspen banks about 2:30 p.m. Wednesday and left packages wrapped in holiday paper along with notes saying the boxes contained bombs, police said. The notes threatened “mass death,” demanded $60,000 cash and included criticisms of President George W. Bush, Assistant Aspen Police Chief Bill Linn said at a news conference.
Blanning’s notes said he was targeting four banks, police said, but only two — a Wells Fargo Bank and a nearby Vectra Bank — received the packages.
Later, police found two similar packages atop a black sled in a downtown alley. Linn said the bombs were dangerous, containing plastic bladders of gasoline, but he did not say how sophisticated they were.
“We believe the suspect abandoned his plan halfway through,” said Linn, who said Blanning’s notes didn’t name the other two banks he planned to target.
16 blocks were cleared
The threats prompted police to clear nearly all of downtown Aspen — 16 blocks that otherwise would have been filled with tens of thousands of New Year’s revelers. Residents were allowed to return at 4 a.m. Thursday, and the town’s holiday fireworks were rescheduled for Thursday night.
Linn said police bomb squads detonated the bombs once the area was cleared, and that one of the packages created a fireball outside a Wells Fargo bank when police detonated it. No one was injured.
The Aspen Times reported that Blanning left a typewritten note at the newspaper’s offices Wednesday evening. The profanity-laced note, which appeared to match those Blanning left at banks, said “Aspen will pay a horrible price in blood” if his demands were not met.
On the outside of the envelope containing the note was Blanning’s handwritten “last will and testament,” which left three Denver properties to two men. He gave no motive, but wrote, “I was and am a good man.”
The note also said a fifth bomb was “hidden in a high end watering hole.” Linn said Aspen bars had been searched but that no additional bomb was discovered.
Blanning was found dead alone in his Jeep Cherokee east of Aspen early Thursday, Linn said. In the car police found a rifle and a handgun they believe Blanning used to kill himself.
Man had made 1994 suicide threat
Police had released Blanning’s name and picture before finding his body; he had been spotted on a surveillance tape from one of the banks. Linn said Blanning was well known to police and that the Pitkin County sheriff remembered him from a 1994 suicide threat.
According to newspaper accounts, Blanning climbed atop the county courthouse with a noose that year and threatened suicide. Blanning was talked off the courthouse after seven hours; he told reporters afterward that he was protesting the “elitists” of Aspen and was angry about a 1990s Colorado Supreme Court ruling about a mining claim.
Aspen residents recalled Blanning as an eccentric who grew up fascinated by Aspen’s past as a silver mining town. People who knew Blanning say he became disenchanted with his hometown as it became an increasingly exclusive destination for the wealthy.
Mary Eshbaugh Hayes, who writes a weekly society column for The Aspen Times, knew Blanning as a boy in the 1950s and once employed him as a driver for her trucking company in the 1960s. Hayes recalls firing Blanning, a noted skier in high school, because he was unreliable.
“He was a very good skier, but he didn’t really fit into the new Aspen,” Hayes said Thursday.
Blanning said in his handwritten note that he had spent time in prison. Linn said he had been convicted in a land scheme, but further details weren’t immediately available.